Janelle Joseph is assistant professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and the founder and director of IDEAS Lab (Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-Racism in Sport) at the University of Toronto. Sabrina Razack is a PhD candidate and manager at IDEAS Lab.
The newly released video of Masai Ujiri’s altercation with Alan Strickland, an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy, dispels a widely held belief that the NBA is shielded from anti-Black racism. Blacks in the NBA are hypervisible. Adored by fans globally, many champions enjoy legendary status. Yet players can instantly be reduced to objects and reminded of their “place” in the racial order (see LeBron James and Russell Westbrook), and even team presidents are not immune. The overpolicing and hypersurveillance of Black bodies is as persistent in the NBA as it is in broader society.
Those who identify as Black in the NBA are from countries as diverse as the United States, Canada, Senegal, Nigeria, France and Greece, and account for 74.2% of all players. There is clear evidence of a systemic anti-Black racism problem when only 37.4 of all assistant coaches and 23.3 percent of head coaches identify as Black. CEOs, presidents and owners remain predominantly white males, which contributes to tensions surrounding much needed shifts in power and support for Black players and employees.
Let’s be clear, the NBA deserves to be commended for its leadership among professional sport leagues in addressing racial and gender equity. But despite the NBA’s apparent progressiveness, much more work is required to stem the anti-Black racism demonstrated in the behaviour of some fans and personnel employed in stadiums. As we see in this incident, the behaviour of institutions the NBA partners with, such as police forces, affects the sport.
Several videos have been released that clearly point to Mr. Ujiri attempting to get on to the court to celebrate the 2019 championship with his team. The newly released video reveals Mr. Ujiri reaching for his pass in his suit jacket inside pocket, and being denied the ability to show it. Mr. Strickland shoved Mr. Ujiri twice and he retaliated, pushing Mr. Strickland back once. Eventually, of course, Mr. Ujiri reached the court, but the celebrations of the Raptors’ championship victory were marred by initial reports incorrectly framing him as the aggressor in the scuffle, bringing the team president’s reputation and judgement into question. Mr. Strickland subsequently sued Mr. Ujiri, claiming injuries.
Some argue that Mr. Ujiri did not have the correct pass, or should have pulled out his credentials earlier. This refrain will be familiar to anyone with knowledge of racist restrictions on the travel of Black people in apartheid South Africa, or Canadian practices designed to confine First Nations to reserves. The military, police and sheriff’s deputies have been using unjustified violence, stereotypes and lies related to showing a pass as tools of white supremacy since the 1800s.
It is naive to think that this is the first time Mr. Ujiri has faced anti-Black racism in the sport world and beyond. Mr. Strickland might have taken a few seconds to read the pass, note the credentials and acknowledge that he did in fact have the right to be on the court, but who gets a “pass” in those situations? Not a Black NBA player attending his university graduation ceremony during playoffs, not a Black NFL player kneeling during the national anthem, not Black MLB players or stadium workers being berated by racist fans, and definitely not a Black president of an NBA team.
Michelle Obama felt the need to clarify her famous statement, “When they go low, we go high,” acknowledging the need for new tactics to combat anti-Black racism. Ms. Obama set the record straight and stated, “going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty.”
What occurred to Mr. Ujiri was a cruel anti-Black racist act.
He will now have to “go high” and prove his innocence in court, a painful reminder of the failure of sporting institutions, even those with predominantly Black athletes, to eliminate anti-Black racism from their spaces. The good news is Mr. Ujiri is backed by a powerful legal team supported by the Raptors organization and its owner, MLSE. He is able to make headlines and fight back. The bad news is, every day there are countless racist acts in professional and recreational sports that don’t make headlines, involving players and coaches who don’t get support.
Mr. Ujiri’s fight is an individual example of the systemic anti-Black racism that plagues all sports. Administrators take note. Recruiting Black players and presidents solves only one problem: representation. Black bodies deserve the right to safety and respect, period. This recent incident and many others have shown that success does not shield athletes or leaders from anti-Black racism. Such change will require direct challenges to the structures and mindsets that perpetuate racism and this battle can’t be won by NBA champions alone. We must all get in the game and play overtime.
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